Just One Question: What Engineering Project Excites you Because of its Innovative, Efficient, or Elegant Design?
A project that I have been involved with in a peripheral way is a hydrogen fuel cell/electric hybrid transit bus now undergoing initial trails. It has innovative engineering features not only in the power system, including its battery technology, but also in its composite body structure. Made of a combination of fiberglass and carbon fiber, the bus has a low profile, easing passenger entry and exit. One of the most revolutionary parts of our vehicle is its propulsion system. It is powered by a combination of advanced technology batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. There is a website by Protera, primary developer of the bus, that tells more.
— John Kennedy ’53 Th’54
Six years after graduating from Thayer, I was working for the Bendix Corp. research labs in Southfield, Mich. Bendix had received a contract from NASA Huntsville for the development of a prototype lunar vehicle. I was project engineer responsible for the traction and steering drives. The mission profile called for a mobile laboratory in which the astronauts could live and also drive across the lunar terrain. One of the most significant technical challenges we faced was how to create a high torque-low speed traction drive system that would “float” the vehicle on loose lunar dust. We didn’t have any insight on the lunar soil characteristics, so we assumed we needed a vehicle with a large footprint for low soil-bearing pressure. Our wheel design consisted of a series of titanium rings or loops that, under vehicle load, would deflect. Essentially, we’d be running on a flat tire.
A scale model of our design was on the cover of the December 1964 issue of Aviation Week, along with a story. Wernher von Braun drove a full-scale vehicle chassis and the “flat tire” wheel design at the Bendix Aerospace Systems test track in Ann Arbor, Mich. NASA got a lot smarter about the lunar soil characteristics and the final 1971 Apollo 15 Boeing-designed “dune buggy” did the job. Maybe someday we’ll get back to the moon or Mars, and the mobile lab concept could come alive again.
— Ron Read ’57 Th’58
The elegant iPhone sets the standard for new products in its simplicity, ease of use, and intuitive design.
— Bill Allyn ’58 Th’59
I have three choices for visually beautiful structural solutions:
- Hopkins Center, with its wonderful boomerang reinforced concrete work that is so optimistic and encouraging in its form. The entrance, fireplace, and windows suggest that the latter half of the 20th century would be fun.
- The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge at the northern approach to Boston is simple, elegant, inspiring.
- The Buckminster Fuller Dome, built for the Montreal World’s Fair (1967). Fuller once said he did every bit of research possible, tried every alternate iteration, tested every possible concept many times based on engineering logic and accuracy and if, in the end, the structure was not beautiful, he had failed.
— Roc Caivano ’66
Naming the problem is the most critical act in design. I was recently hired as a planning and design consultant by the directors of a large youth camp. They were embarking on a capital improvement project and were worried that the necessary approvals and permits might be jeopardized by neighbors who had complained of noise created by the camp. The directors had resigned themselves to conventional responses to noise — altered schedules, relocated or eliminated programs, and expensive sound walls. At my first meeting with the directors I asked them three questions: Why they had named the problem noise, if that was the best name for the problem, and what is “noise.” My point was that the words we use to describe what we perceive can constrain what we are able to perceive. By consciously reflecting on the meaning of the word “noise,” I felt we could probably find a different and much more elegant way to name the problem. After discussions, the problem statement became: How can we shift our neighbors’ perception of our children’s activities and energy from unknown and undesirable to understood and desirable? This was no longer a problem for architects and engineers, it was a problem for community organizers and diplomats. Through this process of re-naming the problem we avoided solutions that would have limited the camp’s activities and diverted scarce financial resources into unproductive assets such as sound barriers. Instead, we moved into strategies that would bring the community together and increase the resources available to the camp.
— Bruce Corson ’70 Th’73
I think the most incredible creative design for innovation, efficiency, and elegance in this decade is the Apple iPhone.
— Randy Lunn ’73 Th’75 Tu’75
A few years ago I directed a project to develop a clean air bulk material handling system, which ended up being patented (No. 5,639,188). In the manufacturing process for the insulated cables used in an electrical grid system, it is crucial to keep the dielectric material clean to eliminate premature failure of the cable. The weak link in the manufacturing process was the transfer of the dielectric from the railcars used to deliver it to the cable production equipment. State-of-the-art procedures in the mid-1990s called for vacuums to convey the dielectric material out of the rail cars using a single paper filter to remove all the contaminants from the ambient air. This added significant contamination to the dielectric materials. To eliminate contamination in this process, a large enclosure was built to house the railcars that contained the dielectric material. Using a series of HEPA filters, the air in the enclosure was controlled as a Class 10,000 environment. But the very elegant portion of the design was to pipe the output of the HEPA filters directly to the discharge valves on the rail cars and pressurize the air supply for conveying. This change reduced the contamination in the conveying air from approximately 10,000 to less than 1,000. The change made a measurable difference in the dielectric strength of the polyethylene material used to insulate the cables.
— Jack Howanski Th’75
I was the inventor and business sponsor of the website and results page for oceanschedules.com. The design seems commonplace today, but when we did it in mid-2006, it was considered quite impressive for its simplicity and ease of use. Go to oceanschedules.com and enter an origin port of New York and a destination port of Antwerp. The design was a finalist for the 2007 CSCMP Innovation Awards. The results page had many firsts: use of context-based ads, use of filters and sliders, and use of AJAX programming in the ocean transportation space. The multidiscipline style of the Thayer education was ideal preparation for this type of role. The site has attracted almost 13,000 registered users, with only 15 percent being in the United States.
— Harry Sangree ’79 Th’80
At my last company, we reproduced how people make credit decisions and created the fifth generation of automated decision making. Making car loans is a very complex process. In addition to applying the five C’s of credit — capital, collateral, capacity, character, and conditions — the credit granter must consider deal structure, portfolio health, and capital sources. For each credit application, a credit “buyer” must keep in mind thousands of potential combinations of related data, and then trillions of potential slices or tranches of data level combination. Using a decision tree as an example, if you have 13 data elements each with 10 slices or gradations, you might have 10,000,000,000,000 potential data level combinations. My solution was to relate together 10 data elements (by borrower-assigned values) that might actually affect repayment of the loan and combine these building blocks together to deliver answers. After we bring the data element together, the user assigns various combinations of data slices together to make scenarios the user feels are predictive. The market proof of the power of the decision engine is that the owner, World Omni (which handles Toyota financing in five southeastern states), has been able to sell its portfolio of collateralized securities for 90 cents on the dollar when other have been struggling to get 70 cents. If only I still owned the company! Venture capitalists forced the sale of the company in the years following 9/11, netting me a few thousand dollars after eight years of work. Five years later, the decision engine I built is like the recipe for Coke: They make hundreds of millions of dollars on two to three sales per year. It turns out that taking venture capital was the most expensive business decision I ever made.
— Toby Reiley ’81
I didn’t work on it, but I want the new Ducati Multistrada bike.
— Nash Ogden ’82
I worked on an integrated circuit design for a novel self-calibrating analog-to-digital converter (ADC) with Michael Coln of Analog Devices Semiconductor Inc. (ADI). The novel aspect of the design was essentially to split the ADC into two similar but not quite identical halves, with each checking the other ADC’s output. With some digital processing the ADC continuously calibrates itself in the background. I got the idea to split the ADC in this way from a few lines in Robert Frost’s poem “New Hampshire,” where he says:
She’s one of the two best states in the Union.
Vermont’s the other … And they lie like wedges,
Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end,
And are a figure of the way the strong
Of mind and strong of arm should fit together,
One thick where one is thin and vice versa.
The design team received the best paper award for “A split-ADC architecture for deterministic digital background calibration of a 16b 1 MS/s ADC” at the 2005 International Solid-State Circuits Conference. There’s a full description in the December 2005 issue of the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits — perhaps the only IEEE article ever to cite Frost’s “New Hampshire” as a reference!
— John McNeill ’83
In my previous job I was in charge of procurement for three countries (Turkey, Israel, and Palestine) at Ericsson. The items we spent the most money on were GSM Towers (which are what we hang the base stations antennas off). I initiated a redesign project that made our towers 40-percent lighter with the same deflection standard (.5-degree deflection at 140 km/hr wind speed) as the previous design. We accomplished this redesign by making the base of the tower wider. Increasing the base size initially raised the cost of the foundation and site rental cost because the tower now took up more space on the ground. We then redesigned the foundation, and that ended up being cheaper because we did not have to dig as deep for a wider foundation. Ultimately, the weight of the foundation is what matters, and since the foundation was now broader, we could make it thinner. We managed to keep the rental cost the same as before and the ultimate tower construction cost came down by half. One unexpected advantage was that we were able to make the towers simpler to erect, hence construction time came down as well.
— Kaya Kazmirci ’84
For several years I’ve been working as an engineer in the aeroelasticity group at MTU Aero Engines in Germany. We have several projects together with Pratt & Whitney in the United States and at the moment we are working on the next generation of aero engines based on the geared turbofan concept. This new engine generation — PurePower PW1000G — has been recognized by Popular Science magazine with a 2009 Best of What’s New Award in the aviation and space category. I’m proud to have contributed to this project.
— Harald Schoenenborn Th’91
I designed the Plast-toilet as a great low-cost toilet, water tank, and solar warmer for Third World countries. I’m the CEO of dvb Design + Engineering in Hyderabad, India. The Plast-toilet is an innovative solution to India’s sanitation problems. (Only one of three Indians has access to improved sanitation facilities, which presents a major health risk. It was estimated in 2002 by the World Health Organization that around 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhea.) The Plast-toilet had to be easy to manufacture in a viable, low-cost, sustainable manner. I have used innovative ideas to build several features into the product. They are: integral wash basin; one-piece water closet, foot rest, shower tray, and toilet floor; replaceable bowl; integral towel holder, soap dish, shower shelves, mirror frame, ventilators, and window; and a door cut out of a vacuum-formed side panel.
— Darshan V. Bhatia ’92
There is one design effort that I’m still proud to have been a part of, even though it was eight years ago. It was an effort to address an extremely high warranty cost problem on the Ford F250/350/450 truck lines during the early 2000s. The problem was that the pinion seal of the rear axle was designed in a way that it actually enabled the ingestion of dirt and contamination. I was lead design engineer from Ford working with suppliers from Dana Axle and Chicago Rawhide seals. The effort we completed was a redesign of the seal lip to a triple lip design that essentially created a triple redundant protection system for the seal. We also added a metal deflector onto the axle that was a stamping. Eventually in 2003 we changed the stamping so that it wrapped around the seal itself, which deflected dirt and contamination. The total costs of all upgrades in 2001 were just over $1 per unit (while the cost of repair before the fix was more than $100). I am proud of this effort, as I see the results of it on American streets every single day even now!
— Ike Anyanwu-Ebo ’94 Th’95
On a recent trip to Dublin, Ireland, I was struck by the elegance, simplicity, and functionality of the Sean O’Casey pedestrian bridge. It adds an element of grace and a sense of texture to the waterfront area.
— Jeanne Townsend Th’97
For flat-out brilliant design, I think it’s hard to beat the AC induction motor. The induction motor has one moving part, uses two common materials (copper and steel), and requires only high-school-level physics to understand. An accurate analysis of its operation takes only one side of a sheet of paper. And yet, more than 100 years after its invention, it is still utterly ubiquitous and almost unchanged from its original form. Nikola Tesla clearly understood good design practice: Combine deep physical insight with extreme simplicity to create something fundamentally useful.
— Matt Senesky ’98 Th’99
My choice for efficient and elegant design is the direct fuel cell. It is elegant because it converts the chemical energy of natural gas directly into electricity with no moving parts other than an air intake fan. The electro-chemical process in a direct fuel cell is 47-percent efficient versus 35-percent efficient for a gas turbine generator with complex moving parts. In spring 2009, my employer, FuelCell Energy Inc., sold to South Korea a 5-megawatt power plant, currently the world’s largest fuel cell power plant.
— Joe McInerney Th’99
I hope that any mechanical engineer who has used an apple corer to simultaneously peel, core, and slice an apple was as amazed as I am every time I use it. I hope that at some point in my life I am able to design something as elegantly functional as this thing.
— Chuck Horrell ’00 Th’01
I’ve always been amazed by the Rabbit wine bottle opener. With one quick motion it pulls out the cork. And then by repeating the same motion, it somehow pushes the cork back off the corkscrew. I know this sounds a bit like an ad for the product, but as an engineer I am really fascinated and impressed by it!
— Gabe Farkas Th’02
I have been amazed by the Chicken Crib, an urban chicken coop designed and built by Andreas Stavropoulos ’02. This product reflects a growing interest in and need for producing food easily in small, urban spaces. The design is simple but elegant, blending efficient use of basic materials with precision crafting to create a durable, smart-looking coop that keeps chickens safe and healthy. Andreas will be selling Chicken Crib kits to assemble on site.
— Kate Tooke ’02
As a design engineer for utility-scale solar photovoltaic projects with Q-Cells International, I have to reconcile aesthetics with optimized power production based on site conditions and power purchase contracts. Further, large-scale renewable energy projects undergo strict permitting and environmental review processes, which forces me to think beyond the “fenceline” to include permeable boundaries to promote wildlife corridors, incorporate dual-use strategies for power production and agriculture, design for earth- and water-balanced sites, and to specify native grass species as ground cover.
— Adam Han ’03 Th’04
As a former ice hockey player for the Big Green and current product developer for Bauer Hockey, I’m probably a little biased in my selection of the recently launched Vapor X: 60 hockey stick. Our development team was responsible for taking high-performance materials developed for jets and racecars, incorporating the biomechanics and customization needs of elite players, and creating a high-performance carbon fiber ice hockey stick weighing less than a pound. While innovation in sporting goods continues to raise questions about the role of technology in sport, there are tremendous opportunities for creative problem solving and technology transfer that make product design and development both a constant challenge and a lot of fun.
— Carolyn Steele ’03
I was recently introduced to the Clock of the Long Now — an effort to build a mechanical clock that will keep accurate time for 10,000 years. They have prototyped most of the key mechanisms and even built a precursor to the final design that was started before midnight of January 1, 2000. It is a wonderful design challenge. Stainless steel may not actually be stainless over such a long time, but precious metals and high-performance alloys may be plundered. Gears can wear down and lose teeth, so they instead keep track of time using a serial adder that counts days. An electronic clock may be impenetrable to a post-apocalyptic civilization, so the works are open and entirely mechanical — within the grasp of the human mind with enough time to ponder it. The best pendulums are imprecise even over the course of a few days; this clock can resynchronize itself to local solar noon to correct itself. The engineers’ solutions are at each turn elegant and wondrous pieces of design and craftsmanship. The key thing about the project, however, is to encourage humans to think in time scales far beyond our everyday lives: not just next year or next generation but next millennium and beyond.
— Alex Streeter ’03 Th’05
As a Ph.D. student in chemical propulsion, I am always in awe of Wernher von Braun’s team and the creation of the Saturn V rocket. The development of launch vehicles is ongoing, but the current generation pales in comparison to this 1960s innovation that sent men to the moon.
— Erik Dambach ’04 Th’05
As a participant in Eaton Corp.’s engineering and technology leadership program, I worked on an emerging hybrid technology for trucks called Series Hydraulic Hybrid. It is designed to replace the conventional transmission on vehicles with a “stop-and-go” duty cycle. The system consists of an engine-mounted hydraulic pump, a hydraulic drive motor, and accumulators (tanks filled with gas that are pressurized by pumping in hydraulic fluid) for energy storage. The efficiency gains arise from the ability to run the engine at its peak efficiency point (since it is not directly connected to the wheels) and from the ability to recapture braking energy by turning the hydraulic drive motor into a hydraulic pump and refilling the accumulators. We have already delivered two vehicles to UPS for evaluation.
— Adams Baker ’06
I am currently working on developing an AC solar module at Enphase Energy. Basically, it is an “intelligent” solar panel that can be connected directly into the grid, which eliminates a lot of the complexity involved with installing solar panels. Additionally, because each panel now handles its own power, there is panel-by-panel monitoring. Each solar panel sends data over existing power lines to a central server, which monitors performance.
— Donny Zimmanck ’07 Th’08, ’09
Vertical farming is a fascinating concept. It involves large-scale agriculture in urban high-rises or “farmscrapers.” Using recycled resources and greenhouse methods such as hydroponics, these buildings would produce fruit, vegetables, edible mushrooms, and algae year-round. This would allow traditional outdoor farms to revert to a natural state and reduce the energy costs needed to transport foods to consumers.
— Laura Weyl Th’08